Saffron Walden County High School was recently featured in two blogs by Tom Sherrington: “An Exemplary School: The Learning Rainforest made real” and “The Ideal Assessment Tracking Regime?”, in which he said: “Saffron Walden County High School has developed sensible organic authentic assessment packaged up to be useful, informative and, where appropriate, linked to exam outcomes, with high expectations built-in. It’s not rocket science. But it comes from a place of intelligent understanding of curriculum and assessment and a spirit of giving value to professional expertise.” Tom Sherrington Nov 2018
Like many schools, we were finding it hard to adjust to “life after levels”. We’ve all heard the arguments for scrapping them: they’d taken on a life of their own; they led to labelling; they valued pace over depth; and their vague ‘best fit’ approach wasn’t diagnostic enough. And yet many of the systems that have been devised to replace levels appear to fall into similar traps.
With so many other curriculum and assessment changes taking place, we might wonder why we needed to spend time coming up with a new framework at key stage 3. But that’s the whole point: it’s because of all those changes that we needed to be prepared to move on; levels were redundant - the curriculum they were designed to assess has long gone. This, however, gives us a helpful starting point: the curriculum must come first! Before we decide how to assess, we need to determine what to assess. Once we’ve decided what knowledge and skills are being taught (and in what order), we can consider how best to check that they have been learnt.
At Key Stage 3, many schools have taken the decision to adopt an ‘all-through’ system, moving straight to a Key Stage 4 grading scheme. It is certainly sensible to recognise that the knowledge and skills needed for the more demanding GCSEs should be addressed sooner but this approach has challenges, particularly the difficulty of making accurate predictions.
Rather than resorting to GCSE criteria, some schools are designing new key stage 3 frameworks. Some schools are giving key stage 3 pupils numbers but numbers that do not equate to the old levels nor directly to the new GCSEs. Unless carefully designed, these systems risk not only being confusing but also potentially falling foul not only of the labelling issue but also of the other problems associated with levels.
So what have we done at Saffron Walden County High School? For a start, we recognise that, due to the staggered introduction of reformed GCSEs, different departments are at different stages in their curriculum development and that all departments have different elements they wish to assess. We have therefore let departments devise their own assessment systems and encouraged them to focus on providing detailed feedback related to task-specific criteria, while being aware of the development of common skills.
Many departments have started by thinking about the ‘strands’ that apply across different assessments. As well as giving specific feedback on the task, pupils can track their progress in these different strands (whether that be performing and evaluating in music or drama, or reading and writing in English or Languages).
As well as qualitative feedback, departments are telling students which ‘band’ they have achieved on a particular strand (without equating this to them being at a particular level or grade overall).
Rather than reporting this range of approaches to parents, we have devised a common ‘currency’ into which to convert these different frameworks. In order to avoid confusion with previous levels and with GCSE grades, we have adopted a non-numeric approach to reporting. Each department has agreed what would constitute ‘good’ progress and therefore what would be ‘excellent’ progress or when there are ‘serious concerns’ about progress or when students are ‘not yet’ making good progress.
In addition, building on the primary model, departments are determining the ‘SWCHS end of year Expected Standard’ in their subject. The criteria that determine this Standard are the knowledge and skills that teachers would expect a student to have grasped by the end of the year. Teachers are therefore in a position to report to parents whether students are ‘meeting’ this Standard or whether they are ‘working towards’ it (or are ‘above’ or even ‘well above’ it). We have said that, although not being a totally accurate forecast of future GCSE performance, ‘meeting’ the end of Year 8 standard would suggest that a student has the potential to go on to achieve a Grade 5 at GCSE.
We believe there are a number of advantages to our approach: while there are a range of frameworks in different departments, we have a simple system for reporting to parents that uses words rather than letters or numbers; it clearly identifies concerns with progress, while avoiding labelling; and, above all, it allows teachers to focus on providing personalised, task-specific feedback for pupils in their books.
A final advantage to our system is that, as we are not reporting grades or levels, departments can very easily adapt their criteria as more information about key stage 4 emerges and, more importantly, can adapt their key stage 3 curriculum to prepare students for the rigours of the new key stage 4 curriculum without being constrained by the zombie-like grasp of levels that refuse to die.
To help students and parents to contextualise these comments on attainment, Teachers provide students with a SWCHS Target Attainment Band half way through the year. This shows students and parents the Attainment Band (‘Working Towards’, ‘Meeting’, ‘Above’ or ‘Well Above’) that students should be aiming to achieve by the end of the year. These Targets are informed not only by their Key Stage 2 performance but also by their CAT scores and, crucially, the work they have been producing during key stage 3. This Target is not to be seen as a cap on aspiration; it merely indicates what students should be aiming for and therefore see if they are not attaining as highly as they have the potential to.
Alongside these comments on attainment and progress, we also provide students and parents with a Learner Score (1-4), which shows how effective they are as a C21st Learner, and a common set of Improvement Codes. These codes indicate what students can do to be a more effective learner. They include being more focused in class or improving the quality of their written work.
As these improvement codes are common across departments, it’s easy to spot common themes. Parents can quickly see if there’s a particular issue with completing homework to a good standard and Heads of Year can see if there’s an issue with behaviour across a number of subjects. We have devised easy to read analyses that show the different improvement codes that have been issued, which makes it straightforward to target intervention.
Finally, alongside these Improvement codes, responding to student and parental requests, we also provide students with Praise Comments. These are comment bank statements which teachers can choose to include, without returning to full written reports, which we moved away from a few years ago in order to reduce teacher workload and speed up the reporting process.
We believe that we have therefore created an assessment and reporting system that is quick to input, easy to interpret and provides meaningful and useable information that both praises students and helps them to continue to make excellent progress.
If you are interested in exploring this further, see this course: Developing the Ideal Secondary Assessment and Tracking System
The Learning Rainforest: Great Teaching in Real Classrooms; Oct 2017 John Catt Educational Limited
Saffron Walden County High School